STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump will not be leaving the country this weekend. Today, he canceled plans to attend the summit in South America. That comes as the president considers military action against Syria and faces legal trouble at home. Last night, at a meeting of national security officials, the president vented about a move by the FBI, and it’s worth listening at some length.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys - good man. And it's a disgraceful situation. It's a total witch hunt. I've been saying it for a long time. I've wanted to keep it down. We've given, I believe, over a million pages' worth of documents to the special counsel. They continue to just go forward. And here we are talking about Syria. We're talking about a lot of serious things with the greatest fighting force ever, and I have this witch hunt constantly going on for over 12 months now.
INSKEEP: That was just the start. The president went on to accuse investigators of being biased and, quote, "just about all Democrats," and said it was an attack on our country. All this came after an FBI raid on lawyer Michael Cohen's office and other locations. We're joined now by NPR's Scott Horsley, who covers the White House, and NPR's Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department.
Gentlemen, good morning.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Who ordered this raid, Ryan?
LUCAS: Well, this was - these were search warrants that were executed by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. That's a man by the name of Geoffrey Berman - worth pointing out that he is an appointee of the president, of President Trump. This would have been referred to - this is according to Michael Cohen's lawyer - Trump's personal attorney - that this was referred to attorneys in the Southern District by special counsel Robert Mueller.
INSKEEP: So the guy investigating Russia found something of interest but didn't go after it himself. He handed it over to the U.S. attorney.
LUCAS: It likely would've been outside his purview. He would've kicked that up to the man who is overseeing his probe - that's Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein - who could then decide if this isn't in Mueller's lane, we'll kick it up to the U.S. attorneys in New York.
INSKEEP: Does a judge sign off then? You said a warrant.
LUCAS: Yes. This would have been - the investigators would have taken the evidence that they had - reason for probable cause - to the judge, and the judge would've approved.
INSKEEP: OK, so a magistrate is involved. Robert Mueller is involved. U.S. attorney from Southern District of New York is involved. And they go after Michael Cohen's documents. Scott Horsley, what is Michael Cohen's relationship to the president?
HORSLEY: He's been a longtime personal attorney for Donald Trump. He was, until last year, an employee of the Trump Organization. And he's functioned not only as a lawyer, but also as sort of a fixer or enforcer for the president. He's been in the news lately for that $130,000 payment he arranged to adult film actress Stormy Daniels just before the 2016 election in exchange for her silence on an affair she claims to have had with Trump. He's also of possible interest to federal investigators because the role he played in efforts to expand the Trump brand internationally with real estate and licensing deals in places like Russia.
INSKEEP: OK, how significant is it, Ryan, that they would target the president's lawyer in this way and go after, apparently, attorney-client communications, right?
LUCAS: Well, first, it's not entirely clear why they were target him. We don't know whether it's because of stuff related to Russia, stuff related Stormy Daniels or something else entirely. But the fact that they took - that they raided an attorney's office and allegedly seized privileged communications - attorney-client communications - certainly suggests that, one, they had solid evidence that they could present to a judge to say, we have concerns about this; we have evidence of a plausible crime.
INSKEEP: Because there's a higher standard to get that stuff, right?
LUCAS: That's right. And it also suggests that investigators were concerned about possible destruction of evidence because they could've gone the normal route, which would've been requesting it, but they decided to go the route of the search warrants instead.
INSKEEP: Couple of other things to check on here - the president said the people who did this raid were "just about all Democrats." That's a quote. Were the people, the many people who signed off on this, just about all Democrats?
LUCAS: Well, the people who signed off on it - the people who would've been involved at the high levels making this decision likely would've been folks at the FBI. The director is, of course, Trump's appointee - Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, again, who is a Trump appointee - and then the U.S. attorney, who I already mentioned in New York, who is, of course, a Trump appointee, as well.
INSKEEP: One other thing to ask about, Scott Horsley - the president talked about this unprompted at the beginning of a Syria meeting where the president is considering military action in response to a chemical attack. He spoke of them together. Is it clear to you that he's managed to keep these issues separate in his mind?
HORSLEY: This was really striking, Steve - not the first time we have heard this president lashing out at another part of the government, whether it's a judge who rules against him or Congress when it doesn't do his bidding or the Justice Department when it functions like an independent law enforcement agency as opposed to his personal advocate and protector. But as you say, it was particularly striking because we had the commander in chief expressing this vitriol while surrounded by uniformed military leaders who thought they were there for a discussion of national security and that apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria, not to serve as kind of a backdrop for this diatribe about Donald Trump's personal legal problems.
INSKEEP: Which he described as an attack on our country. Scott, thanks very much, really appreciate it.
HORSLEY: Good to be with you.
INSKEEP: We also heard from Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department. Thanks for coming by, Ryan.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.